Let the power games begin: Ferguson starts on back foot
Rooney, Carrick and Ferdinand join long list of worries to leave squad 'not in great position' / United manager admits that Chelsea are the team to catch in the title race this season
Sir Alex Ferguson was heading out of the door of the press conference room in the Dublin stadium formerly known as Lansdowne Road late on Wednesday night when the unmistakably high pitch of a young boy's voice crying "Sir Alex, Sir Alex" sailed above the commotion and he couldn't resist turning his head back to find where it was coming from.
Emboldened, a 12-year-old who'd been sitting at the back seized his moment. "You've been in football management for 25 years. Does the performance you've just seen [United's 7-1 win against an all-Ireland side] make you feel like going on for many more?" the boy asked. Momentarily Ferguson hesitated, searching his mind for the mots justes but a smile flickered across his face when he finally found them. "With cheek like yours, I'll be here for many a long year yet," he replied and swung back for the exit.
At moments like this, you can only stand back and marvel at the 68-year-old's ability to drive on and on. It was raining and blowing a gale when he stepped indoors, cold-pinched, yesterday to discuss tomorrow afternoon's Community Shield against Chelsea at Wembley but he still displayed the fascination with which combinations will work for him and the sense that when he finally pushes off, he wants to be the manager who can say: "I was the man who toppled Chelsea and their millions – twice over."
Tomorrow's opponents – the Premier League and FA Cup holders – are the title favourites again, to his mind. "It is getting more competitive every year now but – and I don't see why anyone should ever think differently – the team who won it last season is the one you have to look at," he reflected. "With the experience they have, you have to look at it that way." Compare Carlo Ancelotti's impending £18m investment in Ramires with Ferguson's need of the youth he has developed to come good and you feel that he is in a far more unwelcoming place than in the last post-World Cup period four years ago, when he sent out the United side which stripped Chelsea of their title in such spectacular style.
Not only has the idea of top-four hegemony now been "squashed", as he put it yesterday, but Ferguson faces the task of lifting players, Wayne Rooney foremost among them, whose World Cup dreams have suffered something similar.
The immediate challenge is partly physical with Rooney, who only restarted training nine days ago, meaning Ferguson will not get the benefit of him when the season starts in earnest against Newcastle United on Monday week. Ferguson attaches the same warning about Michael Carrick (whose groin injury sustained in Dublin will see him missing from Wembley), Patrice Evra (who will miss the start of the season because the rigours of three full United campaigns compounded by a summer with Raymond Domenech's squad have led Ferguson to give him an extra week off) as well as the other World Cup contingent of Park Ji-sung, Nemanja Vidic and Javier Hernandez. "There is no point pushing players out too early," Ferguson said. "I don't think we will get the benefit of these players until maybe the third week of the season. We have to give them a proper rest. The World Cup does take a lot out."
Chelsea were hardly immune to the rigours of the World Cup. Only Liverpool's 13-man World Cup contingent exceeded Chelsea's 11, after all. But Ferguson also has Rio Ferdinand missing until September, Anderson until some time similar given that he won't start training for two weeks after a horrific car crash in Portugal, and Owen Hargreaves until who knows when? To cap that, he won't have the Da Silva twins Fabio and Rafael tomorrow because they have suffered food poisoning. "We are not in a great position regarding a full squad," Ferguson said.
And then there is the challenging question of experience. Ferguson has bought two young players, Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez, who have limited or no experience of elite league football, and is now speaking of Darron Gibson, who started only six games in the League last season, as the man who can finally deliver the goals that Paul Scholes once provided the midfield. By contrast, Ancelotti has experience wherever he looks. Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou arrived as boys and are now men.
United's most pressing need looks like a midfield playmaker in the mould of Wesley Sneijder or Mesut Ozil, though Ferguson again stated yesterday that he will go with what he has. "Supporters like you to buy players. They like to see a big signing every year. I think sometimes the players like to see a big signing," he said. "But I think we've got to be sensible about it and look at our own squad. What do we need? At the moment the answer to that is the players that everyone says is available don't excite me."
One subject which does excite him is how Rooney will operate with the 22-year-old Mexican Hernandez, a striker in such a similar mould. "I don't know. We haven't tried anything with that yet," Ferguson said. "There's no doubt Hernandez has got tremendous pace and penetration, we know his qualities. But we've played two strikers in the past. It doesn't mean it's going to happen every week but it will happen on some occasions." Another puzzle is whether the 25-man squad rule will give him an advantage over Chelsea, who have far fewer home-grown players in their first team. ("I've not looked at that and they'll be the same with us.")
But Ferguson's calm sense of optimism is immutable – a product, perhaps, of his rich appreciation of the cyclical nature of football. Back in that World Cup summer of 2006, he took a similarly untried and untested team into the campaign which Chelsea entered two titles to the good and firm favourites, though minus Jose Mourinho. Carrick was the summer's only buy, Evra and Vidic were still finding their feet, while Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were still patching up their tournament spat. Rooney immediately came of age, Ronaldo scored 23 goals in arguably his finest season for the club, Vidic and Evra matured in a masterful defence.
Something similar might just lie ahead this time around. Nani, back from the collarbone break which destroyed his summer, has shown throughout this calendar year hints of the talent his compatriot and friend Ronaldo possessed. Antonio Valencia looks capable of making a stride towards greatness. Federico Macheda is a prodigious talent whose time might be here. Hernandez might be the signing of the summer. Don't expect too much more real knowledge by tomorrow night. United seem to consider this game a useful opportunity for match practice rather than the chance to gain an early psychological advantage in what may be another two-horse title race. But Ferguson can still hardly wait. That schoolboy in Dublin had some cheek but he probably also called it right.
How last season's two top clubs shape up now
Experience is their trump card. The core of Chelsea's team remains the same one that won them the title in 2005 – Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Spirit is good among the squad. Last season was tricky for them, what with the scandals about the private lives of Terry and Ashley Cole, but they still won the Double. The players clearly enjoy playing for manager Carlo Ancelotti, who gave them the freedom to play some wonderful stuff last term.
Someday soon age will catch up with them, and if their legs go the only option is a bunch of kids. The lack of players in their early- to mid-twenties leaves a gulf. Chelsea have looked undercooked in friendlies and are carrying injuries to Cech, Alex and Jose Bosingwa. The side lacks pace, and can look pedestrian against determined defences. They still miss a fantasy player who can make the difference in the blink of an eye, even more so now Joe Cole has gone.
The biggest unknown is whether the youthful likes of Gael Kakuta, Jeffrey Bruma, Josh McEachran and Fabio Borini are really good enough for the first team. Chelsea have a woeful record of producing young talent but as they have not spent much money this summer they are banking on this lot bucking that trend. Brazilian World Cup player Ramires is set to join, but will probably go straight into the first team. After two seasons troubled by injury, Michael Essien must prove his long-term fitness having signed a long contract. The Champions League is the club's priority this season, which could leave them somewhat vulnerable in the Premier League.
Two emerging talents on the flanks could give United a new dimension, with Nani and Antonio Valencia showing hints in pre-season, as they did during the last one, that they can be a real force. New boy Javier Hernandez makes United's strikeforce look strong if he is frequently rotated with Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Dimitar Berbatov and Federico Macheda. Hernandez's emergence suggests Ferguson will be willing to play two up front more often this season.
Midfield. United look like a side in need of a playmaker in the Wesley Sneijder or Mesut Ozil mould, though Ferguson knows that buying World Cup stars straight after a tournament is rarely good value. The club need Michael Carrick to revive the form of two seasons back, though his midweek groin strain compounds a difficult phase in his career. Anderson, who wanted out last summer, then sustained a bad injury, looks a long way off being a force, while Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs can't be relied upon for ever. Darron Gibson is the player United look to.
The defence has looked breachable at times during pre-season. Chris Smalling, the £10m buy from Fulham, looks like he needs time to settle, neither of the Da Silva twins look the finished article and Gary Neville is another year older after looking susceptible to pace last season. Worries persist about whether Rio Ferdinand's back will allow him to play more than half the season's games. But for all that, United conceded fewest goals and kept the most clean sheets in the Premier League last season.
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